University of California San Francisco
Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

Aggressive Treatment, Fighting Spirit Help UCSF Cancer Patient Beat the Odds

By UCSF Public Affairs | February 11, 2009

One of the first things you notice about Lori Nichols is her smile.

It fills the space around her with light and warmth and draws people in closer, especially when it's accompanied by her easy, musical laugh.

"My life has been just wonderful," Nichols tells you, and you believe every word, forgetting that since her diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer in 1999, she has been engaged in an intense, daily battle to stay alive.

Nichols, 49, has been a patient at UCSF's Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center since 2005, when the cancer she hoped was gone for good metastasized to her brain.

For nearly four years, an aggressive, complex combination of cancer treatments has not only kept Nichols alive and - by all outward appearances - thriving, but has also given her doctors new insight into ways of treating the most dire cancer cases.

"With this kind of treatment combination, we are looking into ways to treat patients who otherwise don't have good options," said Nichols' primary oncologist Hope Rugo, MD, director of the breast oncology clinical trials program at the cancer center. "The more options we have, the better we're able to treat the disease."

"To say the treatment has been successful [for Nichols] is an understatement," added Patricia "Penny" Sneed, MD, a UCSF radiation oncologist who also has treated Nichols. "It's keeping her going and allowing her to maintain her quality of life. It's really an inspiring story."

Before coming to UCSF, Nichols had been cancer-free for two years, and when she called her previous doctors complaining of shortness of breath, they told her it was likely asthma, she said. Nichols didn't buy it.

"I gasped for air for a month before coming to UCSF," she recalled during a recent appointment at UCSF Medical Center. "The doctors here were the only ones who figured out what was really wrong. UCSF saved my life."

Brain metastases are tumors that originate in tissues or organs outside the brain and then spread secondarily to the brain. They are common complications of systemic cancer, and approximately 20 percent to 30 percent of patients with breast cancer will develop them, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.

Since receiving her own diagnosis, Nichols has received a variety of treatment, including biweekly infusion chemotherapy for the past year and a half. She has bimonthly PET scans and MRI scans of her brain every three months to detect any new tumors and assess how her existing cancer is responding to treatment.

She also participated in a phase II clinical trial of two cancer drugs directed toward treating breast cancer that has metastasized to the brain and is growing despite radiation. The trial was led by Michelle Melisko, MD, associate clinical professor in the UCSF Division of Hematology/Oncology.

Read more at UCSF Public Affairs